I’m a loafer.
’“Loafer” was one of the first names I remember someone calling me — aside from the occasional endearments cooed by adoring relatives when I was a child, and still cute and innocent enough to be adored.
I clearly recall my grade-school gym teacher, Mr. McIntosh, calling me a “loafer” when I failed to haul my hefty carcass up a long rope hanging from the gym rafters. Same thing happened when I failed to negotiate a backward roll on tumbling day. I couldn’t do a forward roll — what did he expect?
Then, there was my scoutmaster, Howie, saying, “Isberg, you’re a loafer. Get busy working on those knots. What about the bowline on a bight? Know it yet? Huh? No?
Howie was an intense fellow. He sported a campaign hat, looked and acted like a drill sergeant, yelled incessantly. He shaved his head, wore Boy Scout shorts most of the year, complete with goofy knee socks with garters and tabs. He ironed his shirts and lived in a small, frame house with a Weimeraner he trained to murder prairie dogs, rabbits and the like.
Howie was a scary, and lonely guy.
Troop 88’s scary guy.
Every troop meeting got off to a flying start with a half hour of close-order drill. Howie and his assistant scoutmaster, Buzz (also a bachelor and a veteran), put us through our paces, each patrol in its own line.
“Isberg, quit loafing. When I order ‘parade rest’ I expect to see you snap into position.” I had trouble remembering the moves, just like, years later, I would have problems in ROTC remembering the manual of arms and how to reassemble the M1 in the dark. Port arms? Hmmm.
After the Scout Oath, the Pledge of Allegiance, close order drill and pushups, we sharpened knives and axes for a while then got down to the serious business of studying and practicing the skills that would make us top-notch scouts. Howie and Buzz wanted nothing but top-notch scouts. When it came time to go to the Jamboree in July, Troop 88 was going to excel.
I did not excel at much of anything, especially study and practice.
Because I was a loafer.
Study and practice demand prolonged attention and, to this day, this is not something I can muster. I don’t do things that way. With my attention span (approximately two minutes — at the most, on my very best day) I work in bursts. I do something with great intensity for a couple minutes then move on to something else for a couple minutes, then bounce to something else … you get the picture.
As a lad, my lack of prolonged focus put me at a serious disadvantage. As an adult, I developed a system in which I coordinate microbursts in a repetitive cycle. Now, I get a whole lot of things done, each a little at a time.
But, back then, I was scattered. And that was not what Howie wanted.
Picture a chubby, severely myopic guy with a wrinkled scout uniform, kerchief crooked, shirttail out, sitting with a couple of his pals in front of a medium size pole, held horizontally off the floor on a couple of notched sawhorses. The scouts are practicing tying knots for their Pioneering merit badge tests.
Or, rather, two in the crew are working on their knots. The third, the chubby, disheveled bozo, is checking the clock, then looking back to the kitchen area in the church basement where troop meetings are held to see if there are refreshments set out on a table. Refreshments are his favorite part of the meeting. And he has been furtively scanning a dog-eared and grimy copy of Mad Magazine he has hidden beneath his shirt.
The clove hitch and the bowline on a bight might as well be heart surgery for all he knows.
“Isberg, you’re a loafer.”
Same things happened on troop outings. After camp was set up (a mighty tedious exercise, if you ask me; after all, what are hotels for?) there was always some sort of strenuous outdoor activity planned, involving things like hiking, plant identification, tracking and forestry theory. All I wanted to do was stay in my tent and peruse a batch of nudist magazines my pal Chas found in an ash pit. I am obsessed with volleyball to this day.
“Isberg, get out of there and stop loafing.”
The “loafer” tag followed me all the way through high school. Not only did I have a ferocious case of ADD, but I suffered a series of concussions playing hockey and football, and I was lucky to find my way out of the front door of my house, much less learn anything at school. (My experiences during this period of time are the basis of my theory that most of human history can be traced to head injuries and their aftereffects).
There was no way I was going to finish a reading assignment in a prescribed period of time when there were Jonathan Winters records to listen to, and Julia Child to watch on the tube; and there was certainly no way I was going to understand all those marks the math teacher made on the blackboard. I could read Arabic just as soon as I could make sense of an equation.
You gotta be kidding!
“Isberg, you are never going to amount anything if you don’t stop loafing.”
And I certainly haven’t done much to prove them wrong.
Except to become another kind of “loafer.”
And this I do quite well, thank you.
Been making loaves for a long time
I’m talking meat loaves, terrines and the like.
I like nothing better than to mix or layer a whole bunch of things and bake them.
My yen for this kind of loafing began when I was young, when my Aunt Hazel taught me to make individual meat loaves, each baked to a gorgeous, caramelized brown, then glazed with a terrific, sticky, sweet/savory sauce.
Since then, I can’t count the loaves I’ve prepared, and eaten. Patés, terrines, farcies.
The other night, I take to loafing again.
I make a chicken loaf that, as do most meat loaves, admits of nearly endless variations in terms of tastes and tones.
I use two pounds ground chicken (I bought it, but you could grind your own — skinless white or dark meats, or a mix). It is breast meat, so my first concern is to provide additives that will ensure the loaf does not dry out.
The additives? Two eggs, beaten; four tablespoons mayonnaise: a splash of heavy cream; a mess of bread crumbs (I use panko but homemade would be fine, as would, I think, crushed saltines); chopped white onion, sauteed, with a couple cloves of minced garlic tossed in with the onions to cook the last two minutes or so.
This is my base. Then, on to the flavor accents.
On this occasion, I decide to serve the chicken loaf with mashed sweet potato and green chile cakes. The cakes are simple: Three large sweet potatoes, roasted, cooled, the flesh removed and masked roughly. A beaten egg, a half-cup chopped green chile, ground cumin, a flutter of dried oregano, a splash of heavy cream, a bit of flour or crumb for a binder, salt and pepper. Fry cakes in olive oil to dark, golden brown in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat.
With the choice of side, the loaf flavor is set: a chipotle chile, finely minced, and a teaspoon of the adobo sauce in which the chipotle is packed; a half cup cilantro, chopped; ground cumin, dried oregano, salt, pepper.
I mix the ingredients of the loaf well — I want a fine texture.
I put a rack on a large baking sheet. On to the rack goes a double-thick layer of aluminum foil, with holes poked in it at regular intervals.
I shape the mix into a uniform brick and I place it on the foil/rack/sheet.
Into a 350 oven the loaf goes on the center rack for 1 hour, 10 minutes.
Once it is removed from the oven, the loaf rests while I finish off the cakes. I put them on a lightly-oiled baking sheet and sprinkle them with grated cotijo cheese. The cakes go under the broiler long enough to warm them and soften the cotijo.
I slice the chicken loaf and serve a slice next to a cake, accompanied by a fresh salsa, some black beans, guacamole and a crunchy, citrusy slaw.
Ponder, if you will, the variations on flavor and sides for this beauty.
Next time around I might take an Italian turn with the seasonings and serve the loaf with a pasta side.
Better yet, how about herbes de Provence as the taste core of the loaf, with ratatouille and couscous as sides?
And — Yahtzee! — herbed chicken loaf with béarnaise sauce, roasted fingerlings, green beans, fresh greens with a vinaigrette. Can a body ever get enough béarnaise sauce?
I think back now on Mr. McIntosh, Howie, Buzz and a legion of merciless teachers and I can proudly say, “Yes, you were right. I am a loafer. One of the best, as a matter of fact.
“And, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for this loafer to eat.”